The Perfect Gift



Part Two: A Crack in the Ice




(Pittsburgh; Early December; POV: John O’Keefe)

“Hey, John, got a minute?”

When I heard my name called, I’d been just about to start my car and make my escape from the Church service, which seemed to get longer each week. But, looking up and seeing that it was my older brother Mark who was calling me, I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve, to pretend I didn’t hear and make a quick getaway. Mark didn’t talk just to hear the sound of his own voice—though he did take a while to get to the point sometimes. If he was running me down, he probably had a good reason. I glanced at my watch while I waited for him to reach my car. Small chance I’d make my racquetball court reservation if he didn’t hurry. Maybe a small hint….

“Good to see you, Mark, but a minute is all the time I do have. Maybe you could call me?”

“Are you coming to the vestry meeting this week?”

I groaned. So much for good reasons.

“I wasn’t planning on it. There isn’t anything important on the agenda, is there? I’m pretty swamped this week. I’ve got several cases heating up and what with Christmas parties taking up a lot of….”

He cut me off, “I think you’d better find the time.”

I took a second look at his face. It was serious, worried even, which was unusual for him. Mark was the original lily of the field, my mother used to say. He trusted to God to take care of the important things in life and it worked for him. His financial choices were always good ones, his children were happy and successful in school and in romance, and he and his high school sweetheart were as much in love today as they were thirty years ago.

Mark made life seem easy. Which is why, when he was troubled, it was enough to make me take notice.

“Sure, if you think I should be there, I’ll be there. But, you want to give me some idea of what’s up? You have my proxy to vote on anything that’s come up. Does the new priest want to install a gold altar or something?” I grinned; if there was one thing that would get Mark in a tizzy it would be fiscal irresponsibility. Father Baker was on Emeritus status and there was a new young priest in charge, a woman, who seemed to be very lively and filled with new ideas. Many of the older people in the congregation were hesitant to embrace her “born-again” ways—we were Episcopalians, after all, and liked our religion polite and decorous. But she was filling the seats with new members and creating enthusiasm among the younger members, which was good in my opinion.

If only her sermons weren’t so damned…that is, exceedingly…lengthy.

Mark was not open to teasing. “I am the treasurer, so on my own, I don’t have a vote. That’s why I think it’s important that you be there, John. I’m also not good at, well, at arguing.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You expect an argument? What is up, Mark? You still haven’t told me.”

“Officially, I haven’t been told,” he said, his brow creased. He actually turned around to make sure no one was close enough to overhear us before he continued. I would have laughed if he didn’t look so upset. “But unofficially, based on some questions I was asked about our budget, I suspect that Rev. Louisa is going to ask that a paid choir director and a soloist be hired for the Christmas season.”

I scoffed, “Why would we waste money on hiring someone when we have access to a professional singer and director already? Danny is back from his trip and he’s already indicated he’s ready and willing to start choir rehearsals for the season, this week, in fact. So he’s actually getting an early start for him. Hell, last year he pulled something together in twenty-four hours so I really think that….”

“No, John, you’re missing the point. Rev. Louisa wants to use someone else.”

“Why would she….” The light bulb went off. A tad late, but it finally did.

“She doesn’t want Danny because he’s….”



Mark frowned at me but didn’t say anything. This really was the last thing we needed; the last thing Danny needed. He’d gotten back from Scotland and his long-awaited trip to Luke just the other week. I hadn’t had the chance to say more than a few words to him at Thanksgiving but he seemed to be doing well this year. Better than me in a lot of ways. But, that wasn’t important. I was coping. My worry that Luke might have told him about his twin seemed to be unfounded. Surely if he’d learned about David, he’d have hunted me down and torn my head off for not telling him.

I didn’t realize how long I’d been silent. The next thing I knew, Mark was kneeling next to the open door of my Jag, gently shaking me.

“John, John…Jackie, lad, are you okay?”

I started. I must have zoned out on him. I was doing that more and more. Stress, the doctor told me. Post traumatic stress disorder. Time was all I needed, the shrink said, some time off, get away.

Sure, like I wanted time away so that I would have nothing to do but think about what had happened. Keeping busy, that was my solution, and except for the occasional black-out, it was a much better plan. It was just that certain things acted as triggers, such as thinking of Danny’s twin, since I’d used that as a stalling tactic when drugged, my mind dredging up that nightmare from the past to cope with the current one. Trouble was, the old nightmare stayed, keeping the more recent one company.

“I’m okay, Mark, no need to look like that,” I smiled easily at him, used to soothing Michelle and Mary Fran. He didn’t look convinced so I tried plan B—annoyance.

“I’ll be at the meeting. I’ll be ready to deal with any homophobia that raises its nasty head. You can count on me, okay? Now, I have to get going. I’ve work to do at the office if I’m going to be spending tomorrow night at one of those interminable Vestry meetings.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Mark didn’t look convinced and my annoyed act didn’t stop him from questioning me—that was the difference between an older brother and a younger sister.

I smiled at him. “I’m good Mark. Just planning an advance strategy for the meeting, I tend to forget everything else around me when I’m plotting. You know how we lawyers get. Thanks for the heads up.”

He still didn’t look convinced but he stood up. “If you need to talk about anything….” His eyes were on my hands; I was clenching the steering wheel so tightly, my knuckles gleamed white. I forced myself to relax.

“You’ll be the first one I call, promise.”

If I were going to call anyone, that is, which I am never, ever, going to do, I added silently.

There are some things a man just cannot ever tell someone. Not his wife, not his doctor, and not his brothers. As I drove away, I thought about our new, fire-breathing priest in charge—and laughed mirthlessly. I definitely could not ever tell her that I’d been raped repeatedly when held prisoner by agents of my own government. She’d probably consider me a sinner bound for hell like my baby brother. After all, if I hadn’t wanted it done, wouldn’t I have told them what they wanted to know?




(Monday Morning; POV/Danny O’Keefe)

“Hi, Danny! What brings you here this morning? Changing your will and naming me your sole heir?” Mary Fran came out from her office to greet me as soon as I walked into the offices of O’Keefe, O’Keefe and Martinez. In her spike heels, she towered over me, but I had to admit, she looked great. Gone were the days when this older sister was the ugly duckling of the bunch. She looked every bit the chic professional woman. I returned her hug briefly before holding her at arm’s length so I could look over her outfit.

I whistled. “Looking good, Mary Fran. Looking great, in fact. When are you going to make John add a third O’Keefe to the letterhead?”
She smiled proudly. “I’ll be graduating in another year and a half, but I don’t know if I’ll stay here. I’m already getting offers, you know. I got word I made law review, based on the writing competition, one of the few night students to make it.”

That was great news. I hugged her again. “Awesome! I’m really proud of you!”

“We’re all proud of her,” my brother’s voice chimed in. “But I want to know what other firms are trying to poach my star protégé away from the firm?”

“You told me it would be good experience to see how other firms work!” she protested.

“But I wanted to hand pick the firms, not risk having you go to some firm you’d like better than here,” John complained.

I laughed at him. “She’s a marketable commodity. You’re going to have to compete to keep her.”

“And it’s Lennon, not O’Keefe,” she reminded me tartly before heading back to her office. She called over her shoulder. “John doesn’t have a lot of time, Danny. He has a new client coming in at eleven.”

I smiled sheepishly at John’s receptionist, who had been watching the family interaction with wide eyes. She looked new—seeing more than two of us together usually did have a certain effect on people, given the strong resemblance. Now that my hair was short, John and I looked more alike than ever.

Practically like twins.

Which was the reason for my visit—and the reason I hid my coming from John.

“I’m the new client at eleven,” I told the girl. “You can cross David Daniel off your list for the day.” I turned back toward John; his pallor told me that the name didn’t go without notice. Good.

“I trust that your schedule is clear for me?”

He nodded and motioned for me to precede him into his office. I heard him tell the girl to hold all of his calls and see that we weren’t disturbed. That was promising.

Once inside his lovely office, with its view of the Pittsburgh skyline, I turned to face him.


He laughed quietly.

“This is not funny, John.”

He slumped down into one of the chairs in front of his desk. I remained standing. He looked up at me. His expression was sad, which should have tipped me off that he wasn’t quite himself. John is usually expressionless, even when he is feeling very emotional. He is like Brian in that respect. The original ice man, my brother John.

“I like your hair short, Danny. It suits this new, tough you. How was your trip? For obvious reasons, I couldn’t ask you during the Thanksgiving dinner. How is the veggie stuffing, oh and how is our…friend in Scotland? He who must not be named. Is he well? Does he send his love?”

“John…I need to talk to you, but if this is not a good time….” I had been determined to call John on the carpet for keeping secrets from me, secrets I felt I had the right to know, but looking at him, I felt like he was barely keeping himself together. The shadows I’d seen in his eyes back in April were still there. I thought he was doing better. He’d gone to a doctor, I know he had. He promised me he would get help.

I walked closer to him, dropped into the chair next to his and leaned close. I spoke in a quiet voice.

“He’s good, our friend. He does send his love. Especially to you. He would like to see you. He misses us. More than he admits to. It was a good visit.”

“He told you. About when you were born.” John’s voice was flat. Unemotional. But he was gripping his knees now. His hands were bloodless he was holding onto them so tightly—he’d have bruises, I thought, and I gently tried to loosen his grip.

“John…can you talk about it?”

“I wasn’t supposed to. Not ever, you know. Dad told me…he told me never to tell. It was a promise, Danny. I had to do as he said. Fr. Xavier and Dad both made me swear…on Mama’s life and on the Bible…she was so sick, Danny. And my baby…my Godson…he was supposed to live…I didn’t want you to die, I wanted you both to live but Dad said only one of you was going to live and I was supposed to pray for David but I didn’t pray hard enough. Luke, he disobeyed Dad, he picked you up and held you when no one was looking, and I was afraid to do that, but if I had, maybe your twin would have lived too.”

I couldn’t believe I’d ever thought John’s eyes were cold. He was looking at me and his eyes were burning with his guilt and his love for me and for the baby he felt he’d failed. God, he was just a little boy and he had so much put on his shoulders. I put my arms around him and he lay stiff in my arms as he chokingly made his confession.

“I watched Luke hold you and I watched David lie all alone in his plastic bassinet and I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t pick him up. I was too afraid. He was so tiny and there were so many wires and tubes. You were even smaller but Luke wasn’t afraid. I hid behind Dad’s orders. But the truth was, I was afraid that if I did pick him up, and something happened to him, it would be my fault. Instead, he might have died from not being held. And then, when he died, we weren’t allowed to even remember him. He was our brother, as much as you were, and we were told to forget he ever existed.”

John was shaking so hard I could hardly hold him. He pulled out of my arms and started to shake me. “What could I do, Danny? Tell me! You always know the answers! My father whom I saw as the greatest man in the world told me that I was to forget there was ever a child named David Daniel, that to ever mention him and that he died might kill my mother. And my priest, whom I had been brought up to believe was infallible, made me swear an oath that I would obey my father in this, that it was some type of holy vow. I was my Jared’s age. The only time I was ever whipped by Dad was when he caught me putting flowers on David’s grave. I was ordered to forget where it was. What could I do! What could I do!” His hands left my shoulders as he put his head down on his hands. His shoulders were shaking but he wasn’t crying, not yet. I knew the feeling well, when the tears were burning you inside but you couldn’t let them out. Not one of Patrick O’Keefe’s sons. We didn’t cry.

I thought I knew the answer to John’s question when I made my plan to confront him. I’d been so sure that he should have spoken up, told the others what had happened as soon as Dad died, and certainly as soon as Mama died if not sooner. But now, seeing the pain in his eyes, finally understanding the terrible trauma that had been inflicted on him at such a young age, I realized that he must have buried it so deep that it took quite a lot to bring it to the surface.

Like torture.

“I’m sorry, John. I didn’t understand. I was thinking only of myself.”

“Don’t apologize to me, Danny. I should have told you. That I didn’t was one more failing on my part and I’m sorry. I realized last year…but it just never seemed like the right time. After the revelation about…about our ‘friend’…well, I didn’t know how to say, oh, by the way, I realized I had this suppressed memory.”

I smiled ruefully. “It probably wasn’t a good time. And I probably took it better from our ‘friend’ since he had a few other horror stories to share. By the way, don’t you get this office checked for bugs? I thought meeting here meant we could talk freely?”

He leaned back in his chair and sighed. “I tend to be a bit paranoid, even with those precautions. Something about being led out of your office under gunpoint makes a person…cautious.”

“I know what you mean. Terry is still afraid to eat at outdoor cafes.” John smiled but it was a perfunctory effort. He was two beats away from a major nervous breakdown—I should know. I had one myself the other year. Except I was able to keep to my townhouse and heal; he must have been forcing himself to keep going as though everything were normal for the past year. He looked like he was as brittle as…ice.

Thin ice.

But if I knew my family, the last thing he needed to hear was someone else offering the opinion that he needed help. For now I could offer him absolution…and maybe some of the peace I’d found.

“You don’t owe me an apology, but if you did, it would be accepted,” I said, taking his hands and squeezing them. “I am glad you and Luke were there when I was born, and while I am sad that David didn’t make it, I’m glad he had someone to care about him. I’m glad we both had your prayers, and the rest was in God’s hands. I would like to find his grave. I am not sure what should be done about telling the others but one thing I am sure about, I don’t want him lying in a grave that is untended, and practically unmarked.”

John’s eyes were, as usual, unreadable, but he finally said, “I think I can take you to the grave. I haven’t been there for almost thirty years but I am pretty sure I can find it.”

“Thanks. Do you have any objection to having a new headstone made?”

“No. But…can I think about what to tell the others…and when?”

“Yes. I would prefer that we agree on this. It’s waited this long, it can wait a while longer.” I paused. Then I said, “I’m not looking to destroy anyone’s memory of Dad, John.”

He sighed and then looked out the window before saying softly, “Maybe it’s time it was destroyed.”




(Monday Night; POV/Mark O’Keefe)

It was almost time for the Vestry meeting to start and John still had not shown up. His attendance was spotty at best, but since he handled the Church’s legal matters for free, most of the other Vestry members were easy going about his lack of faithful attendance at the monthly meetings. He and Joey pretty much rotated serving, while I’d been serving as the treasurer for decades. Danny volunteered for many other duties in the church, not just the music, but he insisted that long meetings made him break out in rashes so he always politely turned down nominations for Vestry. The girls served too, but we tried to keep the O’Keefe presence down to two or three at a time, plus me. Mary Beth was the other O’Keefe on currently, and she was not the best person in the family for the current situation. Since it was an eight member Vestry, that number was a reasonably fair representation, given how many of us there were. Uncle Frank and his family now went to a different church which spread things out a bit. They now went to the larger Episcopal church on the other side of town, but we’d always loved Fr. Baker and his parish.

We were finding that we were missing him more than we thought we would now that he was semi-retired, though he swore he would be back to handle some of the holiday services. At eighty-seven, the man did deserve some time off, I conceded, even if his flock still needed him.
I was relieved to see John slide into the seat next to me just as Rev. Louisa was clearing her throat to begin the opening prayer.

Forty minutes later, she was finishing up the Bible study that she opened every meeting with. Several of the members looked like their eyes were glazing over, but John’s eyes were sharp.

“Rev. Louisa, before we leave our study, I was wondering if I could ask a question?”

“Why yes, John. I’m pleased to see you take a genuine interest in this part of the evening. Usually you show up after our prayers, and time with the Bible is over.” She smiled at him in what I felt was an insincere way.

I could have told her that her small criticism would not bother John. He was used to the courtroom, where the barbs were bigger and sharper. He simply smiled, and John’s smiles had softened tougher women than her. Her smile back at him was noticeably warmer than her first effort.

“In the passages we just read from Paul’s letters, which give guidance to the new Church, and you highlighted those portions pertaining to sexual practices which certainly are interesting, I was wondering if you could give your thoughts on Paul’s instructions regarding women as inappropriate to preach the word?”

Rev. Louisa stared coldly at John, whose face was the picture of innocence. “If you would look at the book of Timothy, you would see that Paul praises the work of Timothy’s grandmother and mother as ministers of the word.”

“Not quite,” John corrected her gently. “He praises them as saints, and as Christians. But he is very clear that women are to be subservient to men and to….”

“This is a very interesting topic and one which I look forward to discussing with all of you at the proper time,” Rev. Louisa said, cutting in on John’s quiet words. Several of the Vestry members looked surprised by her rudeness, but the others looked glad to be moving on. Mary Beth nudged John and whispered to him, no doubt telling him to stop causing trouble, I thought. But I knew what John was getting at. I smiled encouragingly at him. He gave me the slightest wink in acknowledgment.

I was glad to see it. I’d been worried about him—he hadn’t been himself yesterday. But he was looking much more like the old John again tonight. Whatever had been troubling him, it seemed to be gone tonight. Which was good, because more trouble was coming.

As soon as the minutes from the last meeting were read and approved, Rev. Louisa asked me sweetly if she could delay my treasurer’s report briefly. I nodded, and she beamed.

“I’m so glad, thank you, Mark. We have a great treat in store, ladies and gentlemen. I have the pleasure of introducing to you a dear friend who is with us tonight for the purpose of…well, I’ll let you hear for yourselves.”

With no further explanation, a woman sat down at the piano located at the end of the hall we were in, and she launched into a lively rendition of “Go Tell It On The Mountain.”

Whoever she was, she was quite good, your old style gospel singer, and she had us snapping our fingers and tapping our toes before she started the second verse. By the second chorus, she waved her hand and invited us to join in, which we did, hesitantly at first, but soon at full volume. For all that I was not in favor of anyone else leading our choir at Christmas time, it was a very infectious performance.

John’s eyes met mine and his expression looked wry as I felt as he sang along. Mary Beth, on the other hand, was belting out the song strongly enough to outdo the diva at the piano. That was an interesting dynamic that Rev. Louisa had not taken into account, I mused. Danny was not the only O’Keefe soloist at Christmas, but he was the only choir director who could manage the various prima donna egos to be found in our current choir. Adding yet another one could be explosive in a way Louisa was not expecting.

We all applauded enthusiastically when the song ended.

“Isn’t she marvelous? Isn’t she wonderful? My vestry, let me introduce to you my good friend and a wonderful gift from the Lord, Delilah Jones, currently on sabbatical from her position with the Faith Gospel Choir and available to take the position as our music director for this holiday season! Do I hear an Alleluia?”

What she heard was the sound of stunned silence. Then John said, in his most charming voice, “Welcome, Miss Jones. May I offer you a cup of coffee? Your singing and playing were delightful, so I will certainly say Alleluia and Amen to such wonderful talent.”

He then turned to Rev. Louisa and said, “How lovely that your friend is able to be here for the holidays. But as a vestry, we have been remiss in not telling you, we already have a music director for the holiday season, as well as several soloists. But I am positive that our director would be thrilled to incorporate Miss Jones into the program.”

Rev. Louisa smiled tightly. “As reverend in charge, it is within my authority to determine the musical program for the services.”

“In conjunction with the music director,” John nodded. He turned to George, the Senior Warden, who was eighty-seven, and extremely hard of hearing. “Isn’t that right, George?”

“Whatever you say, John? Do we have to sing some more? Is Danny going to sing now?” George started peering around the room for Danny. I hid a smile behind my budget report, which I doubted I was ever going to be able to deliver tonight.

“No, he’ll be here Sunday, George,” John said in his clear, carrying voice. He turned back to Rev. Louisa, who was sitting with her friend. They both looked pretty determined. The rest of the Vestry was looking uncomfortable.

“Danny O’Keefe has been the musical director for the Christmas services here for over ten years,” John stated in his quiet, commanding voice. “He waives a salary and devotes a good deal of time to developing a musical program for our senior and junior choirs that is a tribute to our Lord and does honor to this Church. Is there a reason why you wish to replace him?”

Well, that was putting the matter squarely on the table. The room hushed as John stared Rev. Louisa down. She smiled gently.

“I would think my reasons would be clear, John. While it is admirable that your brother does not request a salary, we cannot make money the basis for our decision. Nor can we make such venial considerations as whether our music is the envy of other churches lead us to make a wrong choice—I am sure that your professional entertainer brother puts together a very entertaining musical program. I’ve heard that even Mary Beth has voiced concerns, however, that Danny puts his own performance values first, as opposed to sincere worship of the Lord.”

Mary Beth gasped. I frowned. There had been some trouble in the choir a couple years ago, the year of the quilt in fact, but that had all been worked out. Who had been whispering old gossip in the new rector’s ear and why would she repeat it now? I hated gossipmongers.

Rev. Louisa was continuing. “But I think we would all agree that it is important that we send the right message to the community. And it is worth paying a fair wage to a musician for a fair day’s work, or month’s work as the case may be, if it means that we have a clean-living, God-fearing, Christian woman leading our musical efforts this year, instead of a man steeped in sin, no matter how talented he may be.”

I could not believe what I’d just heard. I looked to John to see how he was going to answer.

“We are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God,” was what he said. “Or are you suggesting, Reverend, that your friend is without sin. Or is it you who is without sin and thus can cast the first stone at my brother? I presume you call him a sinner because he is gay?”

“He is a homosexual and makes no apology for it. He lives openly with another man, which is forbidden by the Bible and he does not repent of his sin, yes, I call him a sinner for that and as such, he is not fit to stand at our altar on Christmas and lead the congregation in song.” Rev. Louisa stood, hands flat on the table, and faced John.

“The last time I checked, this was an Episcopal Church,” John answered her. “Are you countermanding the doctrine of our National Convention?”
“I follow the doctrine of the Bible, young man,” she answered proudly, her head held high.

I sighed. This was not going well.

“You are in the wrong, so wrong,” John whispered. He stood up and looked at the other Vestry members. “I have nothing against this lady. She is a very nice singer. But I object to this blatant discrimination taking place. Danny has served in this church since he was a teenager. He’s gone to great lengths over the years to make it back here for Christmas to sing. You all saw him last year; he could barely stand and yet he hobbled to the altar on crutches to sing for God and for the congregation of this Church. He’s never hidden who or what he was. Are you now going to allow this alleged person of God to reject him because he is the way God made him?”

“This is not subject to a vote,” Rev. Louisa quickly interjected, when it looked like most of the Vestry was leaning Danny’s way. “Either I have the authority as the spiritual leader of this Church to choose the music…which includes the musical performers…or I don’t. If I don’t have that authority, then I cannot serve as your priest.”



(Tuesday afternoon; POV/John O’Keefe)

Danny and I walked through the cemetery. It was cold, even for Pittsburgh in December. I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck and wished I’d remembered to bring my gloves with me from the car as I jammed my hands deeper into my pockets. We’d been walking around for twenty minutes now, trying to find the small stone that marked David Daniel’s grave. While we walked, I filled Danny in on the previous night’s Vestry meeting.

“So basically, she blackmailed them. If they didn’t let her hire her friend to do the music, she was going to quit and leave them without a priest for Christmas. She wouldn’t even let it go to a vote—if they voted, she walked.”

Danny laughed. “I think I’m just as glad. I’d hate to have had it go to a vote and then have lost. This way, I can tell myself that Mary Beth would have voted for me and I would have had the whole Vestry on my side.”

“You actually did have Mary Beth, kiddo. Mary Beth was furious at the idea of some ringer soprano being brought in. Now if the woman had been an alto, that might have been a different story…..”

Danny’s delighted laugh was heartening. I was pretty discouraged by the meeting myself. I had to ask, “How can you not be upset? You’ve given so much to that church. Money, time, talent. They should have told that phony priest to stuff her Bible up her ass and take her phony piety to some fundamentalist church where it belongs. Not our Church, for fuck’s sake! We have gay bishops, for crying out loud!”

“I hope you didn’t tell her to jam her Bible up her ass—though it might prove enlightening ….”

His voice faded. He grabbed my arm before I could say anything.

We’d finally found it. The small gravestone was faded and the grass had grown over it but the words could still be seen.

David Daniel, Beloved Son


Danny fell to his knees, careless of the damp that would seep through his designer slacks. I knelt behind him, putting my arms around him.

“Can we get a new stone? One that has his full name?” he asked quietly.

“Yes, and the full birth date too. He died when he was four days old. We can add that.”

“Beloved brother, that is what it should say,” he insisted.

“Yes,” I agreed sadly. “But…maybe we should add that. In his way…. And Mama loved him. She wouldn’t want us to take away the son part.”

“No, I guess she wouldn’t,” he agreed finally, after thinking about it. “I hate what he did, John, and it’s really hard not to hate him too.”

“I understand.” Then, I just had to ask, “Do you hate me too? I was part of it.”

He sighed. “No. At first I thought I did, or at least, was really fucking mad, but, when you mentioned Jared, and I realized how really young that is…and it was younger when we were kids than it is today in a lot of ways, I couldn’t begin to imagine how you coped. Having to go back to the house and pretend everything was normal to the others…. No, I don’t hate you. I feel bad for you.”

He turned his head to look at me. “Was that why you were always so isolated? Not as much a part of things with the others, you think?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure. I know I stayed away from the house a lot that year, but I was already doing it. Mama…Mama had been not herself before that. After she lost Colleen. The house was not a happy place. I stayed over at Mario’s a lot back then. Luke did too. His Mom was very different. It was…easier.”

I didn’t share with Danny how I’d raged when I’d found out Mama was expecting another baby. How stupid it was—why couldn’t my parents use birth control like other parents instead of breeding like rabbits…like stupid Micks. I’d been ashamed of my pregnant mother that school year. It was one more thing that added to my guilt when Dad had dragged me to the hospital to stand as godfather to the tiny premature twin in case he died before morning. How I wished those memories which had been buried for so long would go back to wherever they’d been hiding. The guilt was tearing me apart all over again.

Somehow, Danny was holding me.

“It’s okay, John, it’s okay. You didn’t ‘make’ anything happen. Mama shouldn’t have gotten pregnant again and it was natural to feel the way you did.”

I looked surprised—had I said any of that out loud? He hugged me tight.

“Sometimes I see more than you give me credit for,” was all he said. “Thanks for coming here with me. I’ll look into headstones and talk to the cemetery people and let you know about the choices for something new, okay?”

I nodded. Pretty much anything he wanted, I would agree to. Even moving the small casket to where Luke’s fake grave was. He hadn’t thought of moving the site yet but he would. The baby belonged with the rest of the family. Maybe if he didn’t think of it, I should suggest it.

We were headed back to the car, both of us lost in our thoughts, when Danny suddenly said, “John, I don’t want you saying anything more about the Christmas music.”

I was surprised. “But Danny, it isn’t right! She is discriminating against you!”

“But…” He seemed to search for the words. “I don’t want the service to be about me. It’s Christmas. People shouldn’t be fighting and making political statements.”

“Maybe you’re right.” He looked a little surprised that I agreed. Which told me what I wanted to know. But, just to be sure….

“It won’t seem like Christmas without you singing whatever special song you had planned. I kind of look forward to it.”

He smiled faintly. “Maybe I’ll have to stand on the Church steps afterward and sing something a cappella.”

“There’s a thought,” I agreed. “Something will have to put the spirit back into this holiday for me.”

He looked keenly at me. “John, if you need me to serenade you for you to feel it’s Christmas, trust me, you’ll get your Christmas song.”

“I’m hoping that all of us will get it, Danny.”




(Christmas Eve; POV/Brian Kinney)

“Why do we still have to go to Church if you’re not singing?” I complained as I stood still for Danny to tie my tie. I was perfectly capable of tying my own, but it had evolved into a tradition. Whenever we dressed for a special occasion, he insisted that my tie always needed adjustment. It was really just an excuse to stand close and give me a chance to fondle his ass, but as traditions went, it was a pretty good one.

“We go to Church because it is one of the holiest days of the year, heathen, and not to hear me sing—maybe this priest is right and it is a good thing that someone else perform the anthem.”

Danny gave my tie a final tug then kissed me, his signal that I was finally presentable. As we headed out of the townhouse, we met up with John.

“Where’s the rest of your crew?” Danny asked him.

“Michelle went to the earlier service with the kids. She wanted to meet up with Johnny at the main house. I told her I would see her there after Church. I had a few final things to take care of,” he answered. He looked glum. He’d been campaigning behind the scenes to get Danny reinstated as the music for tonight, up until yesterday. Danny finally insisted he give up, telling him that he was really okay with the switch. In truth, Danny was pretty touched by John’s efforts. None of the O’Keefes were singing in the choir, despite Danny insisting that they should give their support to Miss Jones. They told him that if he was not welcome in it, they were not willing to be in it. He was especially moved that Mary Beth refused to sing, even after she was tempted with a solo on Ave Maria, her personal favorite. Moreover, quite a few of the rest of the choir was boycotting the service. Louisa had to bring in paid choir members to fill in the ranks.

Once we parked—a couple blocks away due to the usual holiday crowd—we walked three abreast in silence. Danny and I walked hand in hand while John had his in his pockets, his head bowed, deep in thought.

“Well, this seems to be the three wise men, come early! May I join you or would that throw off your vignette?”

We turned in surprise. Danny recovered first. “Father Baker!” he exclaimed, rushing back to hug the little old man. “I didn’t know you’d be back tonight! Rumor had it you wouldn’t be back until Sunday!”

“You should never listen to rumors, my boy! You’re looking handsome, though shorn. Hope you aren’t like Sampson, weaker without your hair,” Fr. Baker chuckled at his own quip. He shook my hand and then looked piercingly at John.

“John, my son. Just the fellow to give an old man a steadying arm. Let’s walk together and let these young lovebirds walk ahead for a bit.”

“Of course, Father.”

I glanced over my shoulder once or twice and saw Father Baker talking earnestly, John just nodding once or twice.

“What do you think he’s saying to him?” I asked Danny, whispering.

Danny smiled. “I think he’s putting him back on course. Fr. Baker is good at that. Come on, walk faster, I’m cold.”





“So, you’ve been having a rough time, son.”

I nodded. Sometimes it seemed like Fr. Baker saw right through you. It wasn’t always a comfortable feeling. But then again, he was so accepting and understanding, that it wasn’t a bad feeling either.

“I don’t know how much longer I can hold on,” I found myself confessing, to my shock. To my greater shock, he smiled and nodded as though I’d said something great.

“Sometimes we find that it’s when we let go of the little branch we’ve been clutching at so desperately when we’ve fallen off a cliff, rather like that old Beetle Bailey cartoon, remember him?”

I nodded and Fr. Baker continued, “Well, when you have enough faith to let go of the branch which isn’t supporting you very well at all, you find that there’s a completely adequate ledge a couple feet below you, and it’s been there all along. You just had to trust enough to let go of that little branch in order to find it. Funny, isn’t it?”

“You’re trying to tell me to let go?”

“I don’t think that little branch is supporting you very well, son.”

“I don’t know what else to do.”

“I think you do. What do you think about what’s going on here?”

That got me going. I told Fr. Baker how wrong Louisa was. He started tossing out Bible arguments and I countered him verse for verse.

“But, Fr. Baker,” I finally said, frustrated, “you don’t believe that nonsense!”

“No, I don’t. But I wanted to hear you defend what you believe. You did it well. The Church needs more people like you.”

I laughed. “I’m not suitable for the Church.”

“Why not?”

“I.... I don’t know if I have faith enough,” I finally confessed. We stood on the steps of the Church. Danny and Brian motioned toward us. They’d saved two seats for us a couple of rows from the back. I looked down at Fr. Baker’s homely face. “I see the injustice of something like what’s being done to Danny tonight and I have trouble believing in the Church as a place where a person can go to find healing.”

“Is that what you need, John? Maybe you need to help heal as much as you need to be healed. You have gifts to offer too, you know, as much as your brother does.”

“Does God want either of our gifts?” I muttered.

“God works in mysterious ways,” Fr. Baker retorted, then preceded me into the pew. I was surprised he didn’t go to the altar but he took his place with us—the sinners.

The Church was packed, as was usual for Christmas Eve. After several minutes, with no sign of the procession starting, you could see people starting to get restless, staring at their watches and murmuring to their neighbors.

“Bad form to start your very first Christmas Eve service late,” Fr. Baker said, his voice as cheerful as ever. “Wonder if there is a problem?”

A moment later, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Mark. His eyes were twinkling. I raised an eyebrow.

“Rev. Louisa asked me if I could ask you and Danny to come to the back—oh, and Fr. Baker! Wonderful! You’re the answer to a prayer. Seems that our good rector in charge has been struck with laryngitis…as has her friend the choir director…and we suddenly find ourselves without someone to conduct the service or lead the choir. Whatever will we do?”

I turned to Fr. Baker. “Did you know?”

He looked as innocent as a cherub. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” He turned to Danny. “Would you be a big enough man, my son, to still sing despite not being permitted to do so before?”

Danny smiled. “Oh, I always intended to sing. But I’ll do so from here, Father. We’ll do just fine as a congregation, I think.”

Father Baker then turned back to me. “John, will you serve at the altar with me, please?”

I was confused. “But Danny—this is perfect. I wanted you to be able to sing and it’s like God answered my prayer.”

Danny was shaking his head and he reached over and hugged me tight. “God answered mine too, John. That you would be on my side in this battle when it came home again, like it did this Christmas. That’s the best present you could have given me. Singing for God—I can do that anywhere. You standing up for me the way you’ve done all month, and being with me on that other matter—it’s meant the world to me.”

I blinked away the unfamiliar tears. “I guess I’d better suit up.”

“Well hurry up,” Brian said, breaking his silence. “This service is already half an hour late starting, and you O’Keefes look damn hot in those black and white outfits,” he added.

Danny punched him.

It ended up being a lovely service. Rev. Louisa was silent as she assisted Fr. Baker in serving. Her friend, Miss Jones played the piano, but the singing was phenomenal. Danny basically conducted from his spot near the back of the church, his baritone singing out loud and true. When it came time for the anthem, Miss Jones just sat at the piano, her hands folded in her lap. So Danny started singing O Holy Night, a cappella, and it was breathtakingly lovely. At his sign, the rest of us O’Keefes joined in with him on the second verse, and by the third verse, the entire congregation was singing along. Then, on the fourth, we stopped and allowed Danny to take it again, his voice pure and strong.

It too was a perfect gift.


It was Fr. Baker’s sermon, however, that ended up being the most memorable part of that very special service, as awesome as the anthem was. Maybe because he kept it so simple, yet his old, wise face seemed to look upon each member of the congregation and impart a measure of his own peace and faith.

At least, that’s how it felt to me.

When it came time for him to deliver the sermon, which he couldn’t possibly have known he would be called upon to do that night, he held out his arm to me and asked, “John, could you lend an old man a hand? These steps get trickier every year.”

To my surprise, though, he didn’t have me lead him up into the pulpit, but down into the aisle. One of the acolytes hurried to get him a chair and he sat down right in the middle of the two crowded rows of pews. He looked around at the colorfully dressed people and beamed.

“It is so good to be down here—with you sinners.” A nervous chuckle spread among the gathered people. I stole a glance back at Rev. Louisa and she was stone-faced, alone at the altar. Even the acolytes were sitting down along the steps so they could hear Fr. Baker.

“You know,” he continued in a conversational tone, “the God of the Old Testament is a great and powerful God, and his altar was one that you did not approach lightly. Only very special people dared to serve at it. And that was the way God wanted it then.” He smiled gently.

“But then, in a lowly stable, a very young woman gave birth to a tiny baby, one who would grow up to sit among the sinners, the lowly, the mistake makers and less than perfect people—in other words, people very much like you and like me. It is that One whom we love and worship and whose birth we celebrate and rejoice over tonight. The One at whose altar all are welcome, because He came down from on high to sit among all of us, and found all of us worthy of love. Can we do any less? Go forth and love your brothers and sisters. To fail to do so is the only sin that Jesus abhors. Merry Christmas, everyone.”

With that, Fr. Baker slowly got to his feet and made his way to the crèche. I helped him kneel. Then, kneeling by his side, I prayed, and felt peace.

I’d wanted some sign that right did win out and that wrong-minded, petty people did not get their way and weren’t allowed to hurt good people, at least not all the time. I’d gotten my sign. Fr. Baker’s kind old face challenged me to figure out what I was going to do with it.

Did I have the nerve to let go of the branch?

Once I made up my mind, it really did feel like I had let go of a great weight. Tomorrow, I would tell Michelle that I wanted to go to seminary. And after that, I would sit down with Danny and plan how we’d break the news to our family about the little brother none of them ever knew.

For the first time in a year, I wasn’t dreading tomorrow.

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